Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Making linkages in Tebbo

Tebbo community member and chairman of the community based organization (CBI), Abdi Boru, talking on his cell (photo taken by Alison Mathie)
 In mid-may our evaluation team from Oxfam Canada headed out to the community of over 4000 people known as Tebbo.  Our team included two staff members from the Coady Institute (Brianne Peters and Alison Mathie), two staff from Oxfam Canada (including myself and Solomon Legese), one external evaluator from South Africa (Ninette Eliasov), and our driver and logistics manager (Solomon Sisay).  (I was officially know as Sol for the duration of the evaluation to avoid the confusion with the two other Solomons that were present)
Beast of burden of choice in Ethiopia (Photo: Sol Henson)
 Leaving Addis Ababa and traveling south I could feel the weight of the urban giant recede as we moved in to beautiful rolling plains, the density of people and concrete giving way to grasslands.  Replacing the chaos of Addis traffic were the Asian derived bajaj buggies even horse drawn carts.  Donkeys toiled along the roadsides endlessly bearing their burdens of grain or water.  Their relentless masters often beating them, with straps cut from rubber tires, for no obvious reason other than to say “your best just isn’t good enough.”
Removing dust from the lentils on a windy day (Photo: Alison Mathie)
Girls standing in front of a Tebbo homestead.  Off to the right is a cow dung pile collected for fuel and compost (Photo: Alison Mathie)
 Arriving in Tebbo, we saw round mud huts dotting the landscape that were spaced between large tracts of crop land.  Each homestead contained a pile of hay for the oxen that plow the land and large artistically piled domes of dried cow dung.  The dung is used or sold for fuel and is increasingly used for fertilizer as well.  Another sight that you can’t help but notice is large piles of orange lentils.  Young men gather around the piles lifting woven trays full of the lentil and then pouring them into the wind to separate out the dust and dirt.  When our evaluation team first arrives we are met only by shy children with no adults in sight.  One hiding behind the other, the children, at first wide-eyed and open mouthed soon turned to giggling and taking daring steps forward to timidly shake hands with the glaringly white “ferengis” before running behind the nearest building.
Children of Tebbo (Photo Ninnette Eliasov)
 Slowly community men and women trickle into the compound where we are waiting.  The women, wearing thin white shawls that loop over their heads, called natala and the men in old worn suit jackets with white or printed cloth wrapped over their shoulders, known as gabi.  A group of people we meet have been participating in an asset-based community development (ABCD) process for the last 5 years (often referred to as an ABCD group).  The process has been facilitated by the community based organization known as Agri-Service Ethiopia, a partner of Oxfam Canada.  For the last 5 years they have come together in a loose association to organize themselves around development projects that are planned and initiated by the community using the assets and resources found within the community.  The purpose of our evaluation was to find out how successful they had been at driving their own development initiatives and how reliant they had been on outside support to accomplish those initiatives.
Community members ready to talk about the local economy of Tebbo (Photo: Sol Henson)
 The initiatives of the community were undertaken based on an action plan formed by the ABCD group.  Informing this action plan were exercises carried out by the Agri-service staff where the community mapped their physical and skill based assets, mapped the associations and institutions in their community, and participated in the leaky bucket exercise which provided a simple model of the community economy. Using this information they were able to see how the asset base could be leveraged using associations and specific information on the local economy in order to develop an action plan.  See the previous post for more information on the asset-based community development philosophy and tools.
Constructing a physical map of the community including resources and institutions (Photo Alison Mathie)
 Sitting separately, the men and women found their places within a metal corrugated shed that acted as a meeting point as well as a local training facility for masons.  Introductions were made.  Just one hour south of the capital we had already left the Amhara region of Ethiopia and entered into Oromia, a different tribal region with a different language. This meant that the few words I had learned in Amharic were of little use to me.  In some cases two translators were needed.  One person who could translate Oromifa into Amharic and another that would translate Amharic to English.  A truly challenging game of telephone!

Through translators we began by asking the community for a timeline of activities that they had participated in over the last five years.  I was stunned by their reply.  We learn that they had built a 7 km road, increased the size of their school to encompass more grade levels, had been increasing their participation in savings group associations, decreased expenditures on alcohol and had reduced the practice of female genital mutilation.  To accomplish these initiatives the community had raised over 70,000 birr or over $6,000 US.  These actions were all based on a community action plan that was formed in 2006.

By far the most ambitious of these plans, financially and logistically, was to build 7 km of new road to help the community access the market in the nearby town of Sendafa and to improve access to medical facilities.  Not only does a road require significant funds and expertise but it also requires continued follow-up and maintenance for the life of the road. 

So, how did they do it? 

First the ABCD group recognized the most connected and resource rich associations in their community.  Those groups are known as Idirs.  Idirs are ancient traditional burial societies that support families when an adult or child dies.  They support the grieving families by assisting with the financial and logistical burden burial ceremonies.  However, most, if not all Idirs support activities outside of this mandate as well.  For example if a farmer’s ox dies and he cannot immediately afford another, the association collects money to purchase a new ox or they assist the farmer in plowing his land until he is able to purchase a new ox.  Every community member that comes of age in the community is a member of at least one Idir.
Information on assets, associations, and the local economy all placed on the wall together (Photo: Ninnette Eliasov)
Using the community organizational structures that were already in place, the ABCD group was able to link in to the financial and social resources of the Idir.  The idea of a road resonated with the Idir leaders and they supported the initiative with 30,000 birr (appx $2500 US) from their coffers.  An additional 40,000 birr (appx $3500 US) was collected from individual families in the community using the Idir network.  At this point the Tebbo road initiative was off and running.

In addition to using existing associational structures, the community was also able to make key linkages to the institutions in the area.  With the assistance of Agri-service, Tebbo had created a community based institution (CBI) which is a legally recognized organization led entirely by community members.  The government recognized legal status allowed this group to successfully lobby the district government to provide the expertise and knowledge on road building that the community lacked.  This insured that the road was built to quality standards and promoted healthy community directed dialogue between the people and their government that is so often lacking.  The CBI then approached a local tree harvesting business which provided the community with bulldozers and tractors to assist with the road.  The cost to the community was only for the operators and fuel.  With the funds secured, the government providing know-how, and the earth movers in place the road building project had reached a critical mass of support and was completed within one year.
Lunchtime (Photo: Ninnette Eliasov)
 At 2pm we took a break for lunch.  We drank coke or orange fanta sodas and ate small loaves of delicious bread made by the local bakery.  Breaking bread was a chance to just sit and chat or in my case to at least sit and share smiles unless I was lucky enough to have a translator at my side.  My thoughts were on how organization appeared to be the key to success in the case of the road.  Tebbo now knows the pathways to take to build a road.  They know the right government officials to talk to for expertise, they have the necessary links to private businesses in the area, and they have the organizational power to raise funds and mobilize labor from within using the capacity of the Iddir.  With this type of success comes the confidence and pride that drives motivation to act on behalf of your community.  It is a sustainable momentum that builds on itself because it does not depend on resources from outside but leverages those outside resources when the organization for the initiative is in place.  I can only think that this would not have been the case if an NGO or government had come in and initiated the road building process.
Road under construction (Alison Mathie)
 Many outsiders would visit Tebbo and say first this community needs healthcare, first the community needs clean water that they are sorely lacking, first they need improved seed and agricultural skills,  but in fact they have decided that first they want a road.  Who is to say that a road is not the most important first step?  A road provides access to health centers for the sick and for expecting mothers. A road provides better access to the local markets for improved income for the crops they grow.  Improved income can provide the capital necessary to dig wells.  Who is the one to say?

We wrap up the meeting with the community members presenting to eachother their own takeaway points from our 4 hour meeting.  It is clear from the day’s meeting that there are major ongoing challenges facing Tebbo.  Drought, crop disease, and lack of access to nearby clean water sources are all reported as being serious issues.  Not the least of these challenges being the omnipresent heavy hand of government, NGOs, or private business that can short circuit the development process by their own interests or donor interests with one misplaced investment of money or resources.  Unlike other communities I have seen and worked with, especially in Uganda, Tebbo community members are actively engaged and excited in improving their livelihoods.  It can be seen in their pride in telling their stories and their sincerity in talking about the obstacles they seek to overcome.
A couple moving along the road (Photo: Alison Mathie)
 We end the day with a spectacular drive through the community.  Young men work the orange piles of lentils tirelessly.  Clouds in the sky form in big cottony patches and cast a quilt of shadow and sunlight across the hills and valleys of Tebbo.  After 20 minutes of driving on an old weather beaten track we come upon the new road.  It is closed.  Concerned, we inquire with an old man that has the appearance of being carved from the land he lives on.  He tells us that the maintenance of the road has begun and the government has contributed another 42,000 birr for transporting and laying gravel to improve the durability of the road.  And, oh yes, another 14 km are currently under construction.

(Photo: Alison Mathie)

Monday, May 9, 2011

What the heck is asset-based and community-driven development anyway and how is it being implemented in Ethiopia?

                                             Houses from a rural community of central Ethiopia. 

Introductions and first impressions are now a thing of the past, whether I like it or not.  The meat of my work here for Oxfam Canada begins now as we ramp up to the final evaluation for asset- based and community driven projects here in Ethiopia. Oxfam Canada, for those who don't know, is not an implementing organization in Ethiopia.  Oxfam works through local partners or community based organizations (CBOs) who already know the "lay of the land" so to speak.  This type of approach puts the project facilitation role in the hands of those who are familiar with the language, political and social issues, and the local culture.

This is in direct contrast to my work in Southwest Uganda where I found myself at the ground level facilitating community meetings through translators.  At times I found the language barrier and my inability to understand certain cultural implications as a major struggle for me and my team in Uganda.  I also found the approach to be so resource oriented (we were building latrines and protecting springs) that it took a great deal of the important decision making process out of the hands of the community.  That process is the freedom of the people to decide what actions are most important to the community.  Those who use an asset-based and community-driven approach effectively, seek to shift the responsibility and decision-making of community development into the hands of the community in a positive and affirming manner.
                   A meeting conducted in Southwest Uganda for water and sanitation projects.

The approach first asks the community to tell stories of past successes.  What initiatives have the community taken on without any support from outside resources?  This initiation immediately flips the traditional "needs-based" development discourse on its head.  Instead of the community explaining what their needs and problems are and asking the NGO for help the community members are telling stories of how they have been successful change-makers in the lives of their family and community.  This generates pride and confidence and sets the stage for positive dialogue. 

The next step in the process is to ask the community to describe in detail its assets (skills and resources), it's community associations (savings groups, work groups, church groups.etc), and the institutions that support them (schools, hospitals, NGOs, government agencies...etc).  What has been commonplace in Ethiopia, when asked “what are your shared and individual assets?” community members at first have answered "we have nothing" and when asked about community associations they often describe the NGOs that have been working with them. 

Sample of associational mapping with specific details on relating to those associations including a simple ranking system of importance.

This is most likely a result of conditioning by the NGOs that constantly remind the community of what their problems and needs are and are always suggesting that they need to improve. This type of reinforcement leads communities on a self perpetuating cycle where people dwell on what they lack.  Community members see themselves as inadequate, underdeveloped, and poor and thus they lose the confidence and motivation to assist their families and their community and feeds the “dependency syndrome.” This lost motivation leads humanitarian actors and government to point out their loss of motivation and the issues it has caused and the cycle begins again.

When in fact, after skilled probing by trained facilitators, we learn of a vast reservoir of skills, resources, and networks that lie under the surface of every community no matter how poor they may be.  Sure, there are major issues and problems facing these communities but this approach provides organization and tools that will assist the community to tackle these problems based on their own unique skill sets, resources and networks.  In Ethiopia we find that the community asset base is anchored in farming, pastoralism, hair styling, traditional home-building, basket and pottery making, money managing, small trading, owning land, strong laborers…etc.  Their associations are groups related to traditional burials, traditional disaster safety nets, traditional savings, rotating funds, farming cooperatives, traditional festivals and celebrations, and the list goes on.

          An elevated grain store to keep the grain safe from rats.  One example of a community asset.

At this point, if the community has embraced the process they are feeling confident of their assets and are motivated to mobilize them and act.  One final but crucial tool is a simple economic model known by the Coady Institute as "the Leaky Bucket" which community members create themselves.  This model helps demystify local economics.  In the rural communities we work with, the dominant trade is small-scale agriculture followed by livestock and small businesses.  All of these are dependent on local markets.  The model clarifies how money comes into the community, circulates within the community, and how it leaves.  This simple 3 or 4 hour exercise is often a light bulb moment for community members.  Wastage of funds often becomes clear and economic opportunities and niches become apparent. By improving economic efficiency communities are able to unlock economic resources and use them for accomplishing community driven actions.  If you are interested in learning more about this outstanding community tool please follow this Coady Institute link which describes ways in which the “Leaky bucket” has been used to date (

Simplified example of a leaky bucket diagram showing inflows, outflows, and circulation of funds within the community.  Figure is taken from the above link.  The article is written by  Gord Cunningham of the Coady Institute.

The community is now ready to make an action plan by linking their assets with the appropriate associations and using their community economic model.  Obviously communities are deeply complex and layered by their diversity and personalities.  To make matters more challenging we have outside forces at play including government, private interests and NGOs which makes this work as challenging as any undertaking I can think of.  So the process is not without its difficulties.  It once again comes down to the skill and effectiveness of those local NGOs facilitating the process. They must use their knowledge of the community to appropriately apply the tools in a way that provides context and that resonates with the culture and the people.  If they fail to do this then the process also will likely fall short.  For a concrete example of asset-based and community-driven development approach in Ethiopia check out the following virtual tour of the community of Illu (Aga

This is a method that starts at the root, not the root of the problem, but the root of where the community potential lies.  I am now at the tail end of eight years of asset-based and community-driven development work here in Ethiopia, and responsible for assisting with the documentation of the final evaluation process.  Thus I will record the successes and challenges of introducing this approach in Ethiopia.  Please stay tuned.  Evaluation begins March 16th!